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Jaguars Reintroduced In The Southwest? Scientists Call For A Conversation

A jaguar stares at the camera with tan eyes matching its coat. It's back, top of head and nose are tan with black spots. Meanwhile the cheeks, chin and breast are white with black spots. The nose is a dirty pink. The face and upper torso are all that's in frame and in focus, while blurred greenery is behind it.
Palenque
/
iStockphoto
Jaguar - Panthera onca

We’ve heard a lot about wolf reintroduction in our region, but that’s not the only carnivore environmentalists want to bring back.

Historically, New Mexico and Arizona were home to many jaguars. But the big cat was hunted to near extinction in the U.S. more than 50 years ago. While a solitary few have been seen in recent years traveling up from Mexico, the numbers are extremely low.

Now a group of 16 environmental scientists are calling for a larger discussion about reintroducing Panthera onca. In March, they’d even pinpointed an area of about 2 million acres between New Mexico and Arizona that they believe could be prime habitat for up to 150 jaguars.

The scientists say it could even be a haven for the species in the face of climate change and other stressors.

They aren’t looking to courts or the Endangered Species Act to force this move, though. Instead, they want involvement from stakeholders like ranchers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That agency has a recovery plan for jaguars in the Southwest, but it’s far more limited than what these scientists suggest.

Eric Sanderson is with the Wildlife Conservation Society and led the 16 scientists in their call for reintroduction. He says there are ways where residents and environmentalists can meet in the middle on this.

For one, he pointed to a University of Arizona survey that shows ranchers are less concerned about jaguars killing livestock than their land being designated “critical habitat” for this endangered species. That designation could change what they could do on their property.

“What we actually call for is a conversation first about the pros and cons of having jaguars back,” Sanderson said. “And if you were to ask me, if we were to reintroduce jaguars, there are provisions under the Endangered Species Act where you could put them in as an experimental population where there wouldn’t be critical habitat designated.”

Sanderson also noted that there’d only be 100 or so jaguars over a massive area, so they likely wouldn’t cause much damage in any particular location.

In fact, he says you likely wouldn’t see them, “but you might know that they were there. You might hear them in the distance. Sometimes they grunt in certain seasons, and so you might hear them on the landscape. And that’s an experience that nobody has had in the last 70 years.”

All that said, he notes that there are still a lot of unknowns. He said they’d need more research to understand where these animals would settle in, what other species they’d affect and how to reimburse any possible livestock losses due to their reintroduction.

To see how many have been seen venturing into the U.S. on their own, check out the Jaguar Observations Database.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.